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Giving desktop Linux a try
by Doug Roberts (May 8, 2006)

Foreword: In this interesting guest column, Doug Roberts, a desktop Linux user for about two years, shares his perspective on switching from Windows to Linux, and what to think about when you decide to take the plunge. After an initial, unsuccessful attempt to install Xandros, Roberts tried a Knoppix live CD and soon installed Knoppix on his PC's hard drive, which has since morphed into "an almost pure Debian system." His Linux distro experience didn't stop there, however -- he's also dabbled with Mepis, Ubuntu, Kanotix, Puppy Linux, and others, and has seen (and is impressed by) SUSE. Roberts says all he really wanted, when he embarked on his Linux quest, "was to get away from XP's online vulnerabilities." However, after a few months of using Linux, he "realized one day that [he] was using Linux just about all the time." At this point, his desktop is occupied by Linux "well over" 95 percent of the time.

Giving desktop Linux a try

by Doug Roberts

With the hype around Windows Vista about to reach ear piercing decibel levels when Beta2 is released for testing and evaluation, discerning computer users will no doubt be evaluating what upgrade path they want to take from Windows XP.

XP has been a fairly good ride, and a long one. Make that a very long one. In many respects, this powerful general purpose OS has served its time reasonably well, although some would say it has over-served its time. During its five-year-plus reign, a lot of changes have taken place in the operating system landscape.

Year after year, XP has faced an onslaught of security breaches and vulnerabilities. Apple's OS X, on the cutting edge of OS technology, will naturally draw comparisons with Vista. And lately, Linux has been nipping at XP's heels for a place on the desktop. From commercial Linux distributions like SUSE and Red Hat, to community based distros with strange sounding names like Ubuntu, Mepis, and Kanotix, these Linux OSes are challenging XP both on the security front and in terms of functionality. And, did I mention, they are free!

During the many months that I've been using Linux, I've seen my Debian install mature quite rapidly. I've seen a lot of rough edges polished off and features added as I continued to update my system, which started life as a Knoppix Live CD. I've seen the software applications gain in sophistication, too. In fact, it's not a stretch to say that there are many areas where Linux has not only matched, but has exceeded, Windows XP. In short, I like it.

Does this mean I'm going to try to convince you to abandon Windows XP? No. I still use it, and would feel like a hypocrite if I told you to do something I have not done myself. I'm dual booting and will be for the foreseeable future, as I have things in Windows I need to do from time to time. I just don't use it online very much. :-)

I'll tell you up front, you may have to give up certain favorite Windows software applications if you start using Linux a lot. The strength of Windows rests, in large part, on some of the really great applications that run on it. It's hard for people to be torn away from old favorites that are as comfortable as old shoes. In my case, it's WordPerfect -- it's hard to say goodbye to it.

But, if you switch to Linux, you are also saying goodbye to constantly running Spyware and Antivirus programs, and never-ending hurried malware updates. You are saying goodbye to Windows licensing fees. You are saying goodbye to disk defragmenters! (Linux's superior journaling file system makes them unnecessary.) You are saying goodbye to reboots after OS updates and software installs. Unlike Windows, Linux does not require these reboots. Finally, you are saying goodbye to OS system crashes. You have to work really hard to make Linux crash. Has that got your attention? Oh, and did I mention Linux is costs less? The community-based distros are even free! :-) I did mention that, right?

Taking the plunge

So let's get on with it. If you try Linux, what can you expect?

Linux's reputation as being rock solid stable and secure is certainly well deserved. One big reason: on nearly all Linux distributions, you have to assign a user account to yourself, and a password for it when you set it up.

Once you have logged on, you can then proceed to supply yet another password, so that you can enter into "root" (administrative) mode when you need to. In Windows, just the opposite is true. The default has you running with Administrator privileges from the get-go. And, who among Windows users ever bothers to assign themselves a user account? With Linux, security is built in. There's a lot more I could say about Linux security, but that would take a whole additional article.


These days, Linux runs on most of the main-stream hardware out there. Even a lot of the not-so-mainstream. For hardware that is really unusual, it's a good idea to check to see if Linux has got you covered. Once you decide you want to try Linux, you might want to start out by googling for some Linux hardware compatibility lists.

But let me give you my experiences. I have been surprised that some of my less than mainstream hardware choices work just fine in Linux. For example, I'm using it with a Kyro II video card. (I'm just not a gamer, so don't ask me about games in Linux.) For newer hardware, how about my Mad Dog external USB 7-in-1 dual layer DVD-RW. It works in Linux! And, I never thought I'd find a driver for my vintage Aureal Vortex sound card, but I did. After my SoundBlaster Live card died, (which ironically, I had purchased specifically for Windows/Linux compatibility), I found that someone had reverse-engineered a driver for Aureal Vortex, which it had replaced. After a careful manual install, the crystal clear sound of the Aureal Vortex now rings out when I play music. Those are a few not-so-mainstream hardware cases where Linux works just fine.

The GUI environment

Yes, Linux does have a history of being a command line OS. But, that is ancient history at this point. Yes, you can still do a lot in a command console, but it's rarely necessary anymore for desktop users.

For Linux to ever have a chance to move from servers to desktops, it needed a GUI interface like Windows has. One of the best ones is KDE, which I use. It's a richly featured GUI that easily rivals Windows XP. Eye candy is nice up to a point, but I like my desktop to have some function, not just be pretty, so I actually have a lot of KDE's eye candy turned off -- like bouncing icons when programs launch. :-) Bouncing icons? C'mon! I do have my desktop icons set to turn a bright green when my mouse slides over them, though. Green as in "go."

Speaking of eye candy, I suppose you've heard about the new Windows Vista's glass effects. Have you seen the screenshots? Vista will probably get the award for the world's prettiest OS! But, if you switch to Debian with KDE, you can also get some nice "glass" effects, and without having to upgrade to a newer high-end video card that Vista would require. For example, on my system, the task bar on the bottom of the screen is configured to be about 90 percent clear, letting my photo of Red Rock Canyon show through (see screenshot, below). You can even use a slider to vary the clarity or opaqueness. Menus are also translucent, so that you can see what's underneath them.

The taskbar and start menu are translucent
(Click to enlarge)

But enough fluff stuff. How functional is the GUI interface in Linux? You would, of course, expect drag-and-drop file management, and you get that. The KDE Konqueror file manager/browser is so feature rich, I'm still learning what all it does.

Two of my favorite file manager features are how Linux handles photo and sound files. You know how in Windows XP you have to manually customize every single folder you want to have display photos? I always hated that.

With Debian Linux, using the KDE GUI, if you click on a photo directory, the icons that automagically show up are little thumbnails images. Need them bigger? Just press the magnify icon on the task bar, and they suddenly jump up in size. (And yes, you can can flip or rotate them just like in XP.) If you have a mixture of data files and photo files you can click on the view filter so that only images appear.

KDE's image thumbnail goodness
(Click to enlarge)

If you are using KDE in Linux, you can enable an advanced method for switching to and monitoring running applications that's much better than the old Alt-Tab method. Enabling the "Kasbar" feature creates icons of running applications. When you hover your mouse over them, you get a thumbnail image of that application. While the program icons can be placed anywhere, the best place is on the left side of the screen, centered midway between the top and bottom of the screen. The following screenshot shows the result of hovering the mouse over the Xnview icon, a very nice photo browser/editor.

Kasbar in action
(Click to enlarge)

Or take sound files. Simply "hover" your mouse above a sound file, and in Linux, the sound file will start playing. Great for when you are putting together a custom compilation CD and need to preview a lot of sound files quickly.

Software installation

I know one thing that keeps people from trying Linux, is that they have heard it is hard to install software in Linux. That probably comes from back when Linux was still primarily based on using the command line. If you do need to configure your system from the command line, this is often as simple as commenting a line in/out within a configuration file, or changing an "=false" to "=true," or vice versa. It's very much like editing a Windows "ini" file.

These days, most Linux distributions have software installers with a GUI interface. For special situations, you may occasionally have to resort to a command line installation, but even then, it's often no more difficult than typing "apt-get install package-name" or "apt-get update" from a console window.

Debian Linux, which I use, has the most sophisticated GUI installer of all the Linux distros, in my opinion. It is called Synaptic. Of all the Linux variants, Debian Linux needed to have a really good GUI installer, because Debian Linux runs the most Linux software -- something to consider when choosing a Linux distribution. (SUSE's GUI-based YAST system installation and configuration tool is also very highly regarded.)

Easy GUI installs

When you bring up Synaptic, you enter your root password, and it finishes loading by listing dozens of software categories -- 95+ percent of the open source software that will run on your system. Thousands of open source software packages are listed. You click what you want, and when you are ready, click "Apply," and Synaptic begins to download and install everything you have selected.

It's that easy. It's smart too. It will tell you up front if the software you have selected needs any additional libraries, often auto-selecting them for you. It will give you additional info on optional packages you could add to enhance your selection, and will inform you if it needs to remove items that may conflict with what you want to install. I wish Windows had something even half this great! Synaptic is amazing!

Open source, or commercial apps?

So, there is a lot of open source software out there. Is it any good? Is it as good as Windows? Frankly, some of it is better than Windows. Sometimes you get a clunker, but if one software app doesn't work for you, there are invariably several other choices that will.

The most notable open source software is from Mozilla: Thunderbird and Firefox. Probably many of you already use the Windows versions of it. I do. Firefox Linux gained a lot of functionality when Real Player 10 for Linux was released a few months ago. I use Real Player to listen to NPR broadcasts in Firefox. If you have used Thunderbird in Windows, you know that it is better than Outlook Express. In Linux, it has this same functionality; plus, Thunderbird Linux looks even better than the Windows version.

I mentioned Windows/Linux interoperability earlier. Because there are both Windows and Linux versions of Thunderbird, this gives me the interoperability I want with my email.

How? Early on, I discovered it is possible to change a configuration file in Thunderbird Linux so that it sees the Thunderbird Windows email folders. That means both versions of Thunderbird use the same email folders! Is that cool, or what? Mozilla has documentation on its website that says how to do that.

I know there are Linux fanatics who will only use free (no cost) software. I think that attitude is absurd, myself. If there is a good commercially available application in Linux offered at a fair price, and I need it, then I'll buy it. For example, I have installed Nero Linux v. 2.0, and it is quite good.

NeroLinux screenshot
(Click to enlarge)

I needed Nero because it has better support for dual-layer DVD drives than the open source counterpart CD burner package, K3B. (incidentally, if you own a registered copy of Nero for Windows, you can simply plug in your Windows license key into Nero Linux to activate the full version. No extra cost!)

K3b screenshot
(Click to enlarge)

Don't get me wrong. K3B is actually a little better than Nero for most things. One reason is that it includes a simple media player to help you create your burn lists.

TextMaker is a word processor that's not open source, but has a terrific reputation as a commercial word processor for both Linux and Windows both -- it's available for around $50.00. I have only tried the Windows version, but I am impressed.

TextMaker has stiff competition in the open source arena. Linux offers a pretty good selection of free word processors -- Open Office's Writer, KDE's Kword, and Abi Source's Abiword, to name a few.

One very powerful document creation tool that I think gets overlooked is located within Mozilla's Browser suite. It is Composer, used to create web pages and simple documents. Not only is it extremely powerful, it's easy to use, too. Hey, its WYSIWYG all the way. Its interface is exactly like a word processor. It formats documents in two ways -- HTML of course, and straight text. It spell checks, imports graphics, creates tables, and, of course links, with or without photo icons. Composer is what I used to write this article. I found that Composer makes a perfect companion to Open Office's Writer, because Writer flawlessly imports HTML documents that I create in Composer. Thus, my dual choice is Composer with OO Writer.

What about running Windows apps?

At this point, you may be thinking that while Linux does have a lot of desktop software, you have certain Windows software apps that you just can't be weaned off of. I understand; I'm in the same boat. As I said before, in my case it's WordPerfect. That's the reason I keep dual-booting.

But, let's say you really want to use Microsoft Word. Here, you're in luck! You can run Word and lots more Windows software in Linux. How?

On my Debian install, I added a commercial package called CrossOver Office, to run Word. CrossOver Office uses a technology called Wine, which intercepts Windows commands and translates them on the fly into corresponding Linux commands. The result is that Word runs just the same way as it does on Windows, and with no perceived speed difference.

CrossOver Office also lets me run quite a nice variety of Windows games, as well as Windows Media Player 6.4, which pops up when I click on my favorite Bluegrass Internet radio station. It also runs Adobe PDF Reader 5.0, along with all Windows versions of Firefox! The list of Windows software that CrossOver Office lets you run is so extensive that you should be sure to check if it will run a specific Windows software package in Linux.

But, the most amazing news is that I can run Adobe Photoshop 7 my favorite photo software via CrossOver Office. PS7 does the heavy lifting for my photo editing.
Now, I realize PS7 may be more than what a lot of people need. Is there a good photo editor/browser out there for the rest of us? Yes, it's called XnView, and it's available in both Windows and Linux formats. Most of my every day photo editing tasks get assigned to XnView, a fast browser/editor.

XnView screenshot
(Click to enlarge)

(Editor's note: another excellent free alternative to Photoshop is GIMP. It's also available for both Linux and Windows)

Multimedia abilities

By now you're probably thinking, "Hmm. A Linux Desktop may be possible." But you have lingering concerns like, "Can I play DVDs in Linux." Yes. There are several good DVD players for Linux. I use Okle, a KDE variation of Ogle, the first open source DVD player to support DVD menus.

Okle screenshot
(Click to enlarge)

Xine is another popular DVD player. I just happen to like Okle.

What about playing encrypted DVDs? De-encryption libraries exist in the Linux open source world. Installing them will allow you to play encrypted DVDs. Legally I cannot tell where they are -- but, you can google them. :-)

You may also want to download and install some add-ons to play Windows Media Files (WMA) and MP3 files. These easy add-ons will to give you additional Windows/Linux interoperability.

Kaffeine is a nice media player for the KDE environment that will play these Windows audio formats. Kaffeine has lots of bells and whistles, including the popular visual effects, Goom.

Lately I've started to use XMMS for all my audio needs. XMMS, a standard in the Linux world, has plugins to let me play CDs. I can play mp3, wma, wav, and ogg format audio files. It, too, has Goom for visual effects. I like it because it gives me the most control over my audio output, allowing me to do expanded stereo effects, echo, and equalizer tweaks, etc.

XMMS screenshot
(Click to enlarge)

Also, it is fully “drag and drop” enabled. Drag a song from the file manager to the player and it plays. Or, drag a song to the play list to add that song to the playlist. Try doing that in Windows Mediaplayer -- go ahead. Try! I also like the way I can simply select a folder where a CD has been copied. I've seen too many audio programs where you have to open the folder first and select all the songs you want to hear. Simply selecting the folder is easier.

Installation time?

So, you think you may want to dip you toe into the Linux waters at this point? Ok, I have a couple of suggestions.

Try a Linux "live CD" first. Most Linux distributions have live (aka bootable) CDs that let you actually use the Linux OS of your choice directly from the CD. It will run slower, due to running from the CD drive, but it will give you a real feel for the Linux OS you may be contemplating. In addition, it will let you know, before you actually install it to your hard drive, whether or not it can support all your hardware. That way, you know beforehand exactly what to expect!

Even if you never get further than a Linux live CD, you will want to keep it around. Linux live CDs make extremely good disaster/recovery tools. One of my favorite uses is to clone my Windows XP partition. Just boot the live CD and clone one partition on one drive to an identical partition on another drive. A good bootable Linux CD like Knoppix should be in everyone's tool box, even if they're a die-hard Windows user.

Here's another last bit of advice. I recommend dual booting only one absolutely safe way: buy a second hard drive and install Linux on it. This is also the easiest way to get into Linux. No tricky hard disk-partitioning to worry about. No way to mess up your current Windows install. Absolutely the easiest and safest way. Do that, or don't even bother.

Let me end by offering two Linux distributions I would recommend. If you are interested in a commercial version, my pick is SUSE Enterprise Desktop, which should be out shortly after you read this. If you want a community-based distro, try Debian Kanotix. But you will probably want to explore some on your own. Distro Watch is a great place to start. Good luck!

Copyright (c) 2006 Doug Roberts. All rights reserved. Edited and reproduced with permission. This article was originally written for the New Albany PC Users Group.

About the author: Doug Roberts has written dozens of articles over the years for the New Albany Area PC Users Group, which, when he started with it, was a Sanyo users group. (The Sanyo was one of the very first semi-IBM compatibles.) This is his first article on Linux. His day job is maintaining and keeping up to speed several large Yahoo e-commerce websites, including and For recreation, he likes to backpack with his wife, Connie, and their two dogs.

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